"All of human history is a series of tragedies. Needless tragedies, all of which we could have avoided if only we knew then what we know now. If only we knew now what we could learn in the years, decades, centuries or millennia to come. If they are to come. Even now, we are held back by hatred, falsehoods, and petty squabbles. Hobbled by imperfect knowledge and technical inabilities. Faced with the harsh realities of uncaring nature and the ghosts of so many resources mishandled and squandered in our past. Imagine what we could do if we returned to an unspoilt Earth, with our modern prowess and knowledge. Imagine what our wiser betters could do with the same."
"What are you talking about?"
Lily couldn't help herself. This was ridiculous. Was he just going to ramble on about using time travel to solve everything, was that it? Was that it? Everyone else in the room seemed similarly confused or unimpressed. This, evidently, wasn't what they were all on board with.
The interruption made the man sigh with what must have been an exaggerrated exasperation. He was clearly going to start talking again, probably like she hadn't said anything. But that was fine. She didn't feel spellbound anymore. Let the pompous windbag wind himself up, and then make the break for it. She could figure out how help Portia's successors later
"You want to help people."
"Yes, Portia. I do."
"Then your plan is bad. You aren't helping people the right way."
"Mm. And you, I suppose, in that slimmest glimpse of the world you've been given, know better?"
The man started laughing. Lily scowled. She couldn't just leave on that note.
"But she's right! She doesn't need to know much to know you're crazy."
"No, no, I understand what this is. Portia simply doesn't understand the true scale of things. Neither do you. Nor you, my associates. I've said enough that I suppose it's necessary."
"Then just say it!"
"Our timeline, it is only one of many. One among countless others, a number so large as to make astronomical numbers seem small. And each of them an entire universe, with the story of all human existence playing itself out again and again. Exactly the same, countless repeats of every single human tragedy. But this cycle can be broken. Entirely preempted in every history but our own, if only we develop the tools and the will to go out and settle our advanced civilization on that primeval Earth. Whatever the cost to this world, whatever the cost to the first few attempts to intervene, whatever the cost to you and others of your ilk, Portia... The reward at the end? Preventing countless tragedies and in their place leaving the arc of one utopia sprawling across all the other universes? Such petty prices are nothing compared to that."
"Are you actually crazy?"
"Uh, yeah. Everett, where the hell are you getting this alternate timeline idea? Sure, maybe there could be time travel powers, but..."
"I have seen incontrivertible proof. Perhaps it might not sway you, but I was sure it could not be a trick or forgery. Among other things, I received predictions which have since rung true."
"I understand now."
"Oh. You do? You see, girl? Portia is willing to make this sacrifice, knowing the greater good she—"
"No. I am not willing. Your plan is very bad. I am not a necessary sacrifice for what you want to do."
"No, but eventually one of your successors must be, and—"
"No. None of them either. I understand why an artificial intelligence with the time travel power would be required. A normal human would not survive long enough for the scale of your endeavor. But there is no need to reduce the AI to something you could fully control. You could simply cooperate. If you are so right, you could surely convince them to help. This is only your plan because you don't actually care."
"Ah. I see. So there's no convincing you, then?"
He spoke with an air of finality. But it was anything but. All of his peons started speaking over each other, trying to get his attention or maybe just muttering aloud how gobsmacked they were.
"But Everett... She's right. If that's your real plan... Why did you lie to me? I thought—I thought I was sacrificing Portia for the good of the world. If these powers we make are going to make things worse—"
"If your real goal is this nonsense, are you still going to pay us?"
"Did you both really not know that man is mad? This was simply a unique opportunity."
"Time travel... Uh."
Lily took the opportunity to finally turn around, scrambling towards the window. It wasn't graceful, but it was quick and that was what counted. Everyone was distracted, she had her arms and Portia out of the window before she heard much of a reaction. And then there was a—
Lily froze in place. Everything was silent, or maybe she could only hear the crack ringing in her ears. There was an awful stinging, burning pain coming from one of her tentacles. It was thrashing around, the pain all but screaming at her, almost blocking out any other thoughts, but that wasn't all. She lost half her grip on Portia, the computer now just dangling from her right hand, power cord falling free entirely. She looked at her left shoulder, and it was bleeding. Right above her collarbone. It was bleeding kind of a lot. Portia slipped out of her other hand and clattered on the ground outside, and the spell was over.
Lily screamed. It hurt. She had thought the tentacle was bad, but... She half-turned, and slumped down on the ground. In a puddle of black ichor, which was gushing out of her tentacle. The tentacle which was wriggling around on the ground in front of her, that awful black liquid gushing out of one end, and the stump next to her that had torn in half. Each gush brought another wave of pain, out of rhythm with the pain in her actual arm. The puddle had spread through most of the storage room already. At least she wasn't losing blood that fast, not that much. She probably didn't have that much blood. She was breathing shallowly, maybe that would help. Or make it worse. She had no idea.
She could barely focus on the scene in front of her through teary eyes. The crazy guy had shot her. Apparently he had a handgun. The mousy guy was standing between them, as if he was going to take a second shot for her. The lady was on the phone, and she just had to hope it was 911. She couldn't focus enough to tell what the other two were doing.
"Maxwell, it's nothing serious."
"It's murder! And she is clearly a child!"
"So is Portia. Besides, we can get rid of the evidence. Isn't that right, Jones? You can make all this disappear. Wait, Eliza, hang up that phone—"
"Uh... Boss, about that. The stuff I make disappear... It's been starting to come back. That's why I'm gonna be in trouble, the witnesses..."
"What is that black stuff she's bleeding? It hasn't stopped gushing."
It really hadn't, it was creeping into the next room. Most of the gushing was from the half that was still attached. The rest of the tentacle was barely wriggling, now. She could still feel it, dully, mostly where it touched the puddle. And... She could feel the puddle. Where it touched the ground, the way the air stung it. It hurt everywhere, and she almost couldn't focus on it. She felt like she would lose it, once the shock wore off. She felt like she was going to lose everything, once the shock wore off. Was a shot to the shoulder bad? At least he had missed her neck.
"What do you mean 'coming back'?"
"I mean coming back! They found that car, didn't they!? What if the people start coming back next!? What if this body does?"
"You're... You send things into the future, don't you?"
"If you can do that, might I recommend doing that to his gun? Before he decides to shoot any of the rest of us?"
Lily choked back the urge to scream again. Her mind was racing. She hadn't really caught everything, but that—A car coming back? People that could? That was—it wasn't all just a coincidence. It couldn't be. That was... It was all... She was seething with anger, and then so was the floor. The puddle shifted and writhed, then surged forward into the room. Tendrils sprouted from it, lifting out of the ground and thrashing at the air. The mousy guy screamed and leapt out of the way, the girl just ran out of the room. The tendrils were sprouting higher, and she could tell they were sharp, and she couldn't stop them and—
It all hit the far wall like a wave, spraying out against it, and then it all suddenly collapsed. Just a puddle of weird liquid. Her tentacles had gone, and she must have needed those because she slumped down further. The pain was gone, and even her shoulder didn't feel as bad. She blinked tears out of her eyes, and tried to focus on the room. There was just the mousy guy there, clearly terrified.
Her heart sank. She hadn't... But she hadn't meant... No, she hadn't. She hadn't felt anything like tearing people to ribbons. She couldn't see anything there. That guy could make things disappear, he must have desperately did it to himself. But she had to ask.
It took the other guy a good few seconds to calm down and give her an answer.
"No. No, they all vanished, that guy must have... Fuck. What did they do? Uh, I— I'm not going to hurt you, or try to steal Portia back. So please don't... Are you okay?"
Lily didn't bother answering. She started to try to get up, but her left arm wouldn't move. She couldn't feel it at all. Well, no wonder the pain was ebbing away.
"Are you okay? Did you save me? Please."
The voice trickled in from outside the window. Lily sighed. She probably hadn't actually saved Portia, with the two last peons in place to reach her first. And how would she explain it to the police? She hadn't done anything. Even if that was whoever had done something to her mom, she hadn't saved her, or found out any information. She had just nearly committed a few murders. And probably got herself made victim of one, even if she could hear the guy dialing 911. She really was an idiot. But at least she tried her best. She could say that, at least?
Lily closed her eyes and passed out.